Israeli police question PM over corruption allegations

© The Associated Press Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs a weekly cabinet meeting, in Jerusalem, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017. (Gali Tibbon/Pool photo via AP)
Israeli police question Netanyahu over corruption allegations

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli police are questioning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over corruption allegations, local media reported after police cars arrived at his residence Monday.

The police team did not speak to journalists, but Israeli media said they are looking into suspicions that Netanyahu inappropriately accepted expensive gifts from two businessmen. The reports said the initial questioning, which began Monday evening, could last several hours.

A black screen was earlier placed in front of the building in apparent anticipation of the investigators' arrival and to obstruct the view of journalists seeking to film them.

Netanyahu has denied what he calls "baseless" reports that he received inappropriate gifts, a point he reiterated at a meeting of his Likud faction earlier in the day.

"We've been paying attention to reports in the media, we are hearing the celebratory mood and the atmosphere in the television studios and the corridors of the opposition, and I would like to tell them, stop with the celebrations, don't rush," he said. "There won't be anything because there is nothing."

Israel's Channel 2 TV has reported that Netanyahu accepted "favors" from businessmen in Israel and abroad, and that he is the central suspect in a second investigation that also involves family members.

The Haaretz daily said that billionaire Ronald Lauder, a longtime friend of Netanyahu's, was linked to the affair. Channel 10 TV has reported that Netanyahu's oldest son, Yair, accepted free trips and other gifts from Australian billionaire James Packer.

In October, Lauder was summoned by police for questioning "related to a certain investigation conducted by them and in which Mr. Lauder is not its subject matter," said Helena Beilin, Lauder's Israeli attorney. "After a short meeting, he was told that his presence is no longer required and that there shall be no further need for additional meetings."

Israel's Justice Ministry and police have declined to comment on the media reports.

A campaign is underway by Erel Margalit, an opposition lawmaker of the Zionist Union party, for Netanyahu to be formally investigated over suspicions of prominent donors improperly transferring money for Netanyahu's personal use, as well as reports that Netanyahu's personal attorney represented a German firm involved in a $1.5 billion sale of submarines to Israel.

The prime minister has long been saddled with an image as a cigar-smoking, cognac-drinking socialite, while his wife Sara has been accused of abusive behavior toward staff. Opponents have portrayed both as being out of touch with the struggles of average Israelis.

Over the years, reports have been released about the high cost of the Netanyahus' housekeeping expenses.

In one case, the premier was chided for spending $127,000 in public funds for a special sleeping cabin on a flight to London. Even their costly purchases of scented candles and pistachio-flavored ice cream have been derided.

The Netanyahus have denied any wrongdoing, and say they are the target of a witch hunt by the Israeli media.

Benjamin Netanyahu Questioned in Israel Graft Inquiry

JERUSALEM — Police investigators arrived at the official residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday evening to question him, indicating that Israel’s attorney general has upgraded a long-running graft inquiry into a criminal investigation.

The Israeli news media has been awash in recent days with reports that a criminal investigation was coming, saying that Mr. Netanyahu is suspected, among other things, of having received illicit gifts and favors. On Monday evening, the Israeli news media showed images of police cars pulling up at the residence.

The Israeli police and the Justice Ministry have refused to confirm or deny the reports, saying only that a formal announcement was forthcoming. Aides to the prime minister also declined to comment.

Mr. Netanyahu, who has been subject to police inquiries in the past that ended without charges, has vehemently denied any impropriety. “This will all come to nothing, because there is nothing,” he has said repeatedly of the latest accusations.

Local news outlets say the investigators are focused on two separate cases, one more serious than the other, but they have offered little detail on the more serious one.

The less weighty one, according to reports in the newspaper Haaretz and other outlets, concerns favors for Mr. Netanyahu, and possibly for members of his family, given by Israeli and foreign business executives. The Israeli police took testimony from Ronald S. Lauder, a conservative American businessman and philanthropist, and a close friend of Mr. Netanyahu’s, when he came to Israel in late September to attend the funeral of Shimon Peres, the former prime minister and president.

Mr. Netanyahu’s office, suggesting that he is the victim of a witch hunt, issued a statement over the weekend berating the news organizations for what it described as premature and politically motivated reports. “Try to replace the prime minister at the ballot boxes, as is accepted in democracies,” it added.

In televised remarks on Monday afternoon, Mr. Netanyahu told legislators from his conservative Likud Party in Parliament, “We hear the celebratory spirit and winds blowing through the television studios and in the corridors of the opposition.”

“Hold off the celebrations; don’t rush,” he added. “I’ve told you before and will tell you again — this will come to nothing, because there is nothing.”

Mr. Netanyahu is serving his third consecutive term in office, and his fourth over all. He has exuded confidence lately, lashing out at journalists who have been critical of him, talking up Israel’s diplomatic and economic achievements, and calling in the United States ambassador to Israel, Daniel B. Shapiro, for a dressing down late last month after the Obama administration decided not to use its veto to shield Israel from a United Nations Security Council resolution that condemned Israeli settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Mr. Netanyahu, generally a popular prime minister, has developed a combative relationship with the local mainstream news media. After years of tension with the Obama administration, he also appears buoyed by the prospect of a partnership with President-elect Donald J. Trump, who seems more sympathetic to Israeli government policies on issues like settlements.

For Mr. Netanyahu’s opponents, the prospect of a possible indictment has provided a glimmer of hope, even though elections are not scheduled until late 2019.

“This creates an unusual dynamic in Israeli politics,” said Nahum Barnea, a political columnist for the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth and a critic of Mr. Netanyahu. On the one hand, Mr. Barnea said, there were already signs that Netanyahu loyalists would try to promote legislation banning investigations of sitting prime ministers. On the other, he said, the question of who might succeed Mr. Netanyahu, who has no natural heir in his party, was bound to be raised.

Opposition leaders were fairly subdued in their initial response. Isaac Herzog, the leader of the Zionist Union and of the opposition in Parliament, said it was “a tough day for Israel when a prime minister is under investigation.”

He added, “We are not expressing satisfaction at another’s misfortune.” Mr. Herzog has also been the subject of police investigations over campaign funding.

Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, which has challenged Likud in recent polls, said, “The presumption of innocence applies to every Israeli, including the prime minister.” He called for a swift investigation for the sake of the country, saying, “A person who is being investigated is a person under pressure.”

Israeli prime ministers are not obligated to step down while under investigation, unless they are charged with a crime. Nonetheless, the accusations could chip away at Mr. Netanyahu’s standing. His predecessor, Ehud Olmert, was forced from power in 2008 under the weight of police investigations and accusations of corruption, although he remained in office as a caretaker prime minister until early elections could be held in 2009.

In February, Mr. Olmert became the first former Israeli prime minister to enter prison. He is serving a 19-month term for bribery and obstruction of justice.

Mr. Netanyahu described Mr. Olmert in 2008 as a “prime minister up to his neck in investigations” and said he could not be trusted to make fateful decisions under the circumstances because they might be based on personal rather than national interests.

Since the 1990s, Mr. Netanyahu’s political career has been dogged by inquiries into his conduct, and that of people around him, though no charges have been filed against him. The inquiries have ranged from scandals involving travel expenses and garden furniture — the Netanyahus were suspected of having switched a new set bought for the prime minister’s official residence with an identical, old set in their private home in Caesarea — to a more recent one involving a billion-dollar deal with Germany for the acquisition of submarines.

That agreement came under scrutiny after it became known that Mr. Netanyahu’s personal lawyer also represents the Israeli agent of the German shipyard that builds the submarines, and other naval equipment purchased by Israel, giving rise to suspicion of a conflict of interest.

In that episode, too, Mr. Netanyahu and the lawyer, David Shimron, have denied any wrongdoing.

Mr. Netanyahu’s relationship with Arnaud Mimran, a French tycoon who was convicted of fraud last year, and who testified that he had contributed a large sum of money to Mr. Netanyahu for his 2009 election campaign, has also prompted suspicions of impropriety.

Mr. Netanyahu was questioned as a suspect in a criminal case during his first term in office in the 1990s. That case involved the appointment of an attorney general on what investigators said was an understanding that he would go easy on one of Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition partners, who was the subject of a corruption inquiry at the time, in return for that politician’s support for Mr. Netanyahu’s moves in the West Bank.

Israeli police question Benjamin Netanyahu in corruption inquiry

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is reportedly being interviewed by detectives investigating whether he broke the law by receiving gifts from wealthy businessmen.

The questioning under caution is taking place at Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem. The police team did not speak to journalists as they arrived. Reports said the questioning could last several hours.

Netanyahu has strenuously denied any wrongdoing in relation to a months-long investigation into gifts received by himself and members of his close family. Israeli media said police were investigating whether gifts worth hundreds of thousands of shekels were given with the expectation of any benefit.

During a meeting of his rightwing Likud party earlier on Monday, Netanyahu said: “We notice reports in the media. We hear the celebrations and sense the way the wind blows in TV studios and in the halls of the opposition. Hold off on the partying, don’t jump the gun. I told you and I repeat: nothing will happen, because there is nothing. You will continue making wild allegations and we will continue leading the state of Israel.”

The investigation comes at a difficult time for Netanyahu, whose poll rating has been slipping amid a series of allegations concerning his inner circle.

Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, have weathered several scandals over the years, including investigations into the alleged misuse of state funds and an audit of the family’s spending, even including sums spent on laundry and ice-cream. They have denied any wrongdoing.

Netanyahu’s biggest rival, Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party was ahead of Likud in the most recent polls, called for the latest inquiry to be concluded quickly for “the good of the country”.

Referring to drawn-out proceedings against Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, who was eventually jailed for corruption, Lapid said: “If two prime ministers in a row fall from office because of corruption, it will be very hard to rehabilitate the public’s trust in its leadership. I want to remind the members of the opposition and the media that the presumption of innocent applies to every Israeli, including the prime minister. We need to let the police do their work.”

Naftali Bennett, another of Netanyahu’s rivals and an ally in his coalition government, said: “The prime minister should not resign because an investigation was launched. An investigation can end with nothing coming out of it.”

Police have been carrying out the current inquiry in secret for eight months and were recently reported to have made a breakthrough.

In July, Israel’s attorney general said he had ordered a preliminary examination into an unspecified affair involving Netanyahu, with no details given. The Haaretz newspaper reported that billionaire Ronald Lauder, a longtime friend of Netanyahu’s, was linked to the affair.

In October, Lauder was summoned by police for questioning “related to a certain investigation conducted by them and in which Mr Lauder is not its subject matter,” said Helena Beilin, Lauder’s Israeli attorney. “After a short meeting, he was told that his presence is no longer required and that there shall be no further need for additional meetings.”

Netanyahu has acknowledged receiving money from Arnaud Mimran, a French tycoon who was sentenced to eight years in prison over a €283m scam involving the trade of carbon emissions permits and the taxes on them.

Netanyahu’s office said he had received $40,000 in contributions from Mimran in 2001, when he was not in office, as part of a fund for public activities, including appearances abroad to promote Israel.

Netanyahu has also faced scrutiny over the purchase of submarines from the German firm ThyssenKrupp. Media reports have alleged a conflict of interest as the Netanyahu family lawyer, David Shimron, acts for the Israeli agent of ThyssenKrupp.

In May, Israel’s state comptroller released a critical report on Netanyahu’s foreign trips, some with his wife and children, between 2003 and 2005 when he was finance minister.

Netanyahu, 67, is in his fourth term as prime minister and currently heads what is seen as the most rightwing government in Israeli history. He has served as premier for a total of nearly 11 years, fast approaching the revered founding father David Ben-Gurion’s 13 years.

Polls have shown that if elections were held now, his Likud party would finish behind the centrist Yesh Atid, but that voters would still prefer Netanyahu as prime minister.

The inquiry has led to fierce debates in Israeli politics, with Netanyahu’s allies accusing opposition politicians and some in the news media of unfairly pressuring the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit.

On Monday, the regional cooperation minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, denounced what he called a “campaign of provocation and incitement” against Mandelblit. However, others have accused Mandelblit of moving too slowly in the highly charged case.

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